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A principal is pressed into classroom duty as math teacher shortage hits home (w/video)

Wiregrass Ranch High School principal Robyn White teaches a statistics class recently in addition to her administrative duties. Her students praised her for keeping them on track after other math teachers left.
Wiregrass Ranch High School principal Robyn White teaches a statistics class recently in addition to her administrative duties. Her students praised her for keeping them on track after other math teachers left.
Published Oct. 13, 2015

WESLEY CHAPEL

Robyn White hadn't taught probability and statistics in more than 20 years.

She geared up for the challenge, though, after Wiregrass Ranch High School's sole teacher for the course resigned in late September, and no qualified applicants responded to three job ads.

To make it work, White, the principal, gets to campus around 6:30 a.m. each day to cram in some administrative duties before hustling off to teach three periods. She breaks back to the office by 10 a.m., hoping no urgent emails have hit her inbox before she begins teacher observations.

Within a few hours — maybe with time for a bite to eat — she's back to the classroom for two more periods teaching math. After that, she makes a final administrative run before heading home, where lesson planning and paper grading often await.

It isn't easy to lead Pasco County's largest high school while also teaching a full load of classes. But White says her inability to find a certified teacher in one of Florida's critical shortage areas left her little choice. Seven other high schools within a 45-minute drive also need math teachers.

"I would be very uncomfortable hiring somebody with an elementary background or a social studies background for a math job," said White, who taught math 19 years before becoming a school administrator. "They're not going to be what's best for my students. . . . I'm not going to settle."

Middle and high school math teachers have appeared on the state's shortage list all but seven years since 1984. In recent years, the situation has worsened as projected math teacher vacancies have increased, along with the percentage of out-of-field math teachers hired.

Statewide, 2 percent of 705 new math teachers were not appropriately certified in 2009, compared to 3.4 percent of 2,351 hired in 2013.

National data confirm that math and science positions are the toughest teaching jobs to fill, said Richard Ingersoll, a University of Pennsylvania education professor and leading expert on teacher supply and demand.

He wouldn't call it a teacher shortage, though.

"The data really tell us it's because of turnover," Ingersoll said. "We actually make enough teachers. We don't make enough to cover the large amount of quitting that schools have."

The nationwide push to have more children studying math, science and engineering has two related effects, suggested Sandi Jacobs, a vice president for the National Council on Teacher Quality. It increases the need for teachers in those fields, she said, but it also accentuates other professions.

"We're really trying to steer students toward careers in math and science," Jacobs said. "But it's not really clear that we're highlighting teaching as one of those careers."

Many of the other jobs vying for math majors appear lucrative, while teaching remains a relatively low-status, low-pay profession with more stress and pressure than ever before, said Diane Briars, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

A concerning upshot is that the largest group of U.S. math teachers have one year of experience, she said.

"It's people coming in and then saying, 'This is not what I want to do with my life,' " Briars said. "It's a challenge."

Wiregrass Ranch senior Katera Jefferson has experienced the effect two years running. Each time her teacher left mid-semester, White took over.

"It's shocking, because if you're the teacher you should uphold the responsibility," Jefferson said.

She praised White for helping students not miss a beat in their lessons, while also running the school. Jefferson was not alone.

"She makes sure we're all learning and makes sure we understand it before she keeps going," senior Sarah Sanchez said of White. "It's better than having a sub who doesn't know what they're doing."

White does keep a substitute teacher on hand in the classroom, in case she's called away for principal work. For the most part, though, she hunkers down with her students, her focus on math from the opening "do now" problem through the final bell.

She asks questions more than lectures, roaming the room to offer more in-depth assistance while students work independently on lessons. She keeps detailed notes in her hand-written "statistics bible," which she willingly shares with teens who miss class or can't keep up with their own note-taking.

White even makes time to tutor students outside class, senior Jeremy Moser said. "She's a great teacher."

But he and others acknowledged that she can't keep teaching them all year long. They just hoped their next teacher will help them as much, and stick around.

White shared that desire.

Unlike hiring in May or June, trying to find someone in the middle of a semester is difficult, White said. Most of the qualified candidates already have jobs.

Wiregrass Ranch leaders have visited area education colleges, looked into leads from local tutoring centers, and cold-called possibilities from state databases of people with certification who live in the region.

One potential candidate has shown interest, but hasn't met all state requirements to teach. It's White's best lead so far, and if things work out, that person could be on the job within a month.

"I'm hoping," White said, crossing her fingers. "Hoping."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.